Bowers & Wilkins, commonly known as B&W, was founded in 1966 by John Bowers in Worthing, West Sussex, England. It grew out of an electronics store that John Bowers and his friend Roy Wilkins had started after World War II.
Bowers & Wilkins released its first speaker, the P1, in 1967. But the 801, released in 1979, is the brand’s most famous model. The cachet surrounding the 801 reflects its continuing success in the hi-fi market and the accolades it has consistently been receiving from critics. The distinctive styling of the 801 has undoubtedly contributed to the allure, and steady technical refinement through ten or so design iterations has helped to substantiate it. A measure of the 801’s stature is its use in London’s Abbey Road Studios—arguably, the world’s best-known recording facility. Bowers & Wilkins now has a formal partnership with the studio.
Andy Kerr discussing Bowers & Wilkins founder John Bowers (front in photo) and Nautilus designer Laurence Dickie
According to Andy Kerr, director of product marketing, John Bowers named the speaker 801 because it was the first of the ’80s generation of the company’s loudspeakers. Coincidentally, it was around 1980 that I myself got into hi-fi and first learned of the 801, so I go way, way back with this model.
I recall attending a presentation about the 801 in 1982, when a B&W rep visited a store in the small Canadian city where I grew up. If memory serves me, the 801s I saw and heard at that presentation were a little different from the original design: the midrange headshell was composite, not wood. That early introduction to the 801 left a strong impression on me, and although I’ve never owned a pair, I did get a pair of Matrix 1 standmounts in 1986, when the Matrix series was introduced. B&W’s Matrix speakers were the first to feature a criss-cross internal bracing system, resembling that found in some wine boxes.
The Matrix 801 Series 2
Matrix-series speakers are no longer made, but the Matrix enclosure has become a staple of B&W’s speaker designs. A year after its introduction, Matrix technology was incorporated in the 801 with the release of the Matrix 801 Series 2. Like nearly everybody else in the hi-fi world, I fell in love with that speaker and considered buying a pair. But the 801’s little brother, the Matrix 802 Series 2, was better suited to my room then, and I eventually opted for it instead. That Matrix 802 Series 2 pair remained my reference speakers for around five years. Deep down, though, in all that time, it’s the revered Matrix 801 Series 2 I wished I had.
On June 28 Bowers & Wilkins announced the latest iteration of the 801, the 801 D4 Signature. It is based on the 801 D4, as the name suggests, which was released in 2021 and remains available, and supersedes it as the new flagship model. The 801 D4 Signature is priced at $50,000 per pair, whereas the standard 801 D4 sells for $38,000 per pair (all prices in USD).
The Signature epithet harks back to B&W’s Silver Signature of 1991, an exceptional speaker conceived as a tribute to John Bowers, who died in 1987, and timed to coincide with the company’s silver anniversary. Signature has been appended to every special-edition B&W speaker since.
The 801 isn’t the only 800-series speaker to get star treatment. Bowers & Wilkins has also announced the 805 D4 Signature, a standmount design based on the current 805 D4, which also remains available. The 805 D4 Signature is priced at $12,000 per pair, $3500 more than a pair of standard 805 D4s. Matching stands, the FS-805 D4, are offered for $1400 per pair. This stand has already been available for the standard 805 D4; its design hasn’t changed for the 805 D4 Signature.
Andy Kerr showing an 801 D4 Signature to some of the June 8 attendees
The new Signature editions of the 801 D4 and 805 D4 were shown to a group of North American journalists, including me, on June 8, 2023, during a press visit to Masimo Consumer Audio in Carlsbad, California, at its newly acquired division (formerly, Sound United). Masimo now owns Bowers & Wilkins, as well as several other hi-fi brands that used to be under the Sound United umbrella, such as Marantz, Denon, and Classé Audio.
At first sight, the noble pedigree of the 801 D4 Signature and 805 D4 Signature is immediately apparent: each cabinet size and shape is identical to that of the standard model. The drivers are the same too: the 801 D4 Signature remains a four-driver, three-way design (a 1″ diamond-dome tweeter, a 6″ Continuum Cone midrange, and two 10″ Aerofoil woofers), and the 805 D4 Signature is still a two-way speaker with two drivers (a 1″ diamond-dome tweeter and a 6.5" Continuum Cone midrange-woofer).
The 801 D4 Signature’s midrange and tweeter sections
The tapered-tube tweeter-loading technology of B&W’s iconic Nautilus, introduced in 1993, has been incorporated in subsequent releases of the 800-series models, so it’s not new for the Signature editions of the 801 D4 and 805 D4. What is new, however, is the Midnight Blue finish that was brought over from the Nautilus—a sumptuous deep shade of blue with a super-high-gloss topcoat. It’s used on the bass cabinet and Turbine Head midrange enclosure of the 801 D4 Signature and on the midrange-bass cabinet of the 805 D4 Signature. In both models, the tapered-tube tweeter assembly on top is black, as it is in the standard 801 D4 and 805 D4. Complementary blue leather clads the top part of the main cabinet of both Signature speakers. The leather is sourced from Connolly, a British luxury leather supplier whose clients also include Ferrari and Aston Martin.
For those who like the high gloss of Midnight Blue but prefer the more traditional look of wood, Bowers & Wilkins offers the bold California Burl finish (same price). Tweeter enclosures are still black in this finish, as is the 801 D4 Signature’s midrange enclosure, and black Connolly leather adorns the top of each speaker’s main cabinet. I’ve seen the 801 D4 Signature in the California Burl finish; it’s an eye-catcher. Still, I’d likely opt for Midnight Blue if I could afford a pair. But that’s just me.
The 801 D4 Signature in the California Burl finish
These embellishments are purely cosmetic, of course. And while they do not improve performance, they certainly do affect the price. According to Kerr, applying the California Burl finish to the 801 D4 Signature takes 24 hours, time and labor that must be factored in. As most audiophiles know, the upscale end of the hi-fi market isn’t all about performance—a product needs to look its price. Undeniably, the 801 D4 Signature and 805 D4 Signature do.
The upgrades to the standard models in the Signature editions encompass more than aesthetics; important technical refinements have been implemented in both models as well.
The 801 D4 Signature’s main cabinet is topped with a solid-aluminum plate, now improved, that is said to reduce unwanted resonance and improve midrange transparency. And whereas the underside of the cabinet in the standard 801 D4 is made of wood and has a plastic port flange, its Signature counterpart has a new solid-aluminum bottom plate and port flange. This results in reduced port noise, the company claims. The 801 D4 Signature’s woofers have all-new motor systems. They have also been tweaked cosmetically in a way most will never see: the baskets are black, not the standard silver. The permanently affixed tweeter grille has been refined for improved dispersion characteristics (look closely at the accompanying photo; the differences are subtle but they’re there). Some crossover parts—notably, bypass capacitors—have been changed, too, in voicing the Signature model.
Andy Kerr with the new 801 D4 Signature crossover
The upgrades to the 805 D4 Signature haven’t been as extensive. It does not have an aluminum bottom plate or front port—the port remains plastic, and the underside remains wood. But its aluminum top plate has been improved over the standard 805 D4’s. It also gets the new tweeter grille, an upgraded midrange-woofer motor system, a black basket for the midrange-woofer, and tweaked voicing through an upgraded crossover.
The real flagship
Before I go further, let me talk about the elephant in the Bowers & Wilkins room, the Nautilus.
Now priced at $70,000 per pair, the Nautilus is still in production, 30 years after its release. Since it has always been priced higher than any 801 model, you’d think it’s the company’s flagship speaker. Back in 1993, and for many years thereafter, it was. But not anymore, Kerr explained in Carlsbad, because its design has remained mostly unchanged. The only changes the Nautilus has undergone since its introduction, Kerr said, relate to safety standards and legal compliances, since it’s sold worldwide.
The legendary Nautilus loudspeaker
The speaker know-how amassed by the team at Bowers & Wilkins over three decades could certainly have been applied to the Nautilus to take its stellar performance to a higher level still; yet, curiously, no substantial design changes have been made to it. The reason isn’t laziness or negligence on Bowers & Wilkins’s part. The Nautilus remains in production because there is still high demand for it, which speaks volumes for how forward-thinking the original design was. It was never intended to remain on the market this long, but because of ongoing demand, Bowers & Wilkins still makes 26 pairs per year—no more, no less—and will continue to do so for as long as people want them. A classic design, frozen in time, made alongside the 801, which now represents the company’s state of the art in loudspeaker design.
On June 8, in Carlsbad, the 801 D4 Signature and 805 D4 Signature were presented as finished products. I got a first look at these models in November 2022 when I accompanied our videographers on a visit to Bowers & Wilkins’s Worthing facility to shoot videos on the factory and the history of the 801. The Signature projects were well underway then but not yet complete; we saw plenty of drivers and cabinet parts but no finished speakers.
During our visit, we got to listen to a pair of 801 D4 Signature prototypes, with unfinished cabinets, and compare them with current-production 801 D4s. The demonstration was led by Steve Pearce, chief acoustic director at Bowers & Wilkins and the brand’s longest-serving designer. Assisting him was transducer and acoustic designer George Weaver. The listening session was held at the company’s Southwater Research Establishment (SRE), where all Bowers & Wilkins’s design engineers work, a 20-minute drive from the factory. The 805 D4 Signature was not included in that demonstration.
Southwater Research Establishment
At SRE, Pearce and Weaver showed us the new drivers and aluminum parts of the 801 D4 Signature. Voicing was still being fine-tuned with crossover tweaks but was said to have reached a final phase.
Based on that demonstration, I could tell that the Signature prototype had better-defined bass than the standard 801 D4. This was obvious when they played Neil Young’s “Old Man,” from Live at Massey Hall 1971, which Pearce told me is one of their favorite demo tracks. I also noticed that the midrange exhibited less vocal sharpness and better control of sibilance. We heard the same improvement in bass definition and refinement of midrange on other tracks as well.
I also learned that the SRE team likes to play their music loud—as in LOUD. They seem to favor a full-throttle, enveloping, punch-you-into-your-seat sound. That’s their jam, and that’s why when music is played that way, it can sound out-of-this-world good on the 801.
An 801 D4 Signature woofer
My main takeaway, then, was that the 801 D4 Signature prototype was better than the 801 D4 at these high volume levels. I left thinking Bowers & Wilkins had a winner on their hands.
The speakers shown in California were finished, so we got a taste of what consumers can expect to see in their homes. And we did get to hear the 805 D4 Signature too. Kerr opened the demonstration by playing three tracks on 805 D4 Signatures, driven by Classé Audio electronics. He didn’t follow that by playing these tracks on the standard 805 D4s, though, which surprised me; at previous Bowers & Wilkins presentations, there had always been a back-and-forth comparison between the newer model and the one it was meant to supplant.
Andy Kerr demonstrating 805 D4 Signatures
The first track was Freya Ridings’s “Lost Without You.” I was already familiar with this recording, so I knew that it has a lot of treble energy and vocal sibilance. Those qualities were spotlit by the 805 D4 Signature, which seemed suffused with treble energy inherently, but Ridings’s singing voice was extremely clear.
None of us could tell much about the 805 D4 Signature’s bass capabilities from the Ridings track, because there’s not much deep bass content on that recording. That’s probably why Kerr next played Eric Clapton’s live version of “Layla,” from Unplugged. The bass on this track isn’t just powerful, it’s subterranean. But you need very large speakers to reproduce it. We didn’t hear that subterranean bass, because the 805 D4 Signature is not large enough to deliver great depth. But the bass was powerful for its size. This didn’t surprise me; I usually find the bass performance of Bowers & Wilkins’s small speakers to be strong. Finally, Kerr played Taylor Swift’s “Vigilante Shit,” which didn’t tell me much, other than that the 805 D4 Signature could play loudly and cleanly.
We next moved to the 801 D4 Signature. For this demo, we were able to compare the 801 D4 Signature with the standard 801 D4, though only with the first track Kerr played. The same Classé Audio electronics were used, at the same volume level on the preamp—the standard and Signature models are close enough in design that their sensitivities are most likely identical.
The 801 D4 Signature demo seating situation.
Kerr began with the standard 801 D4, playing the title track of an album called Life Goes On by pianist Carla Bley, saxophonist Andy Sheppard, and bassist Steve Swallow. As Spear had done at SRE, Kerr played the music loud, but the Masimo Consumer Audio room is considerably larger than the listening room at SRE, and the sound wasn’t quite as intense as it was in the UK.
He let us listen for a while, then the changeover happened, and it was immediately obvious that the 801 D4 Signature speakers sounded more so than the standard 801 D4 speakers. I also thought that the lower midrange sounded cleaner and had a little more bite; it showed more detail. With this recording, though, I couldn’t tell how the speakers reproduced sibilant vocal sounds.
Andy Kerr’s 800-series playlist
Kerr played several more songs but did not conduct any more comparisons, which I found disappointing. I was hoping to be able to confirm the improvements the 801 D4 Signature was said to have over the standard 801 D4 and to get a better feel for its character. To delve deeply into the speaker’s sonic character, a proper audition is called for, of course, something we’ll certainly do as soon as we can get our hands on a sample pair for review.
During this demonstration, I found myself fixating on the bass performance of the 801 D4 Signature, which at times was overpowering even in that large room, with a sofa in the front and armchairs in the two rows behind. As I started to move around the room, I realized that although the speakers’ bass was stentorian, the reason it was overwhelming was probably due to room modes. From the chairs in the back row, the bass level was too high, but as I moved forward, it decreased and detail improved, not just in the bass region but also in the lower midrange. When I finally reached the sofa at the front, I realized that this was the optimal position. The bass level was ideal and the level of detail throughout the audioband was phenomenal.
The view from the front and center listening position
While I was still seated front and center, Kerr played his final cut, Billie Eilish’s “Therefore I Am.” He played it as loud as Pearce had played “Old Man” at SRE—way, way louder than anyone would likely play these speakers at home. The result was nothing short of amazing. The speaker end of the room was awash in sound, with Eilish’s voice projected massively, tangibly center stage, and the bass hammering us so hard as to threaten our internal organs. The highs were a little hot, but because the bass was so deep and powerful, I couldn’t say for sure if the treble balance was too high or just right. Throughout the demonstration, I was consistently struck by how excitingly visceral the 801 D4 Signature sounded, how intense and immersive its sound was, yet so detailed. It was as if the speakers had me by the shirt collar, commanding me to listen. When it was over, I stood up and thought, “Oh, I’d love to have these at home.” I’ve heard many speakers over the years; very few have gotten me as worked up as the 801 D4 Signature.
Since we didn’t hear the 805 at all on our visit to Bowers & Wilkins in England and heard only the 805 D4 Signature model during the Carlsbad demo, I cannot attest to its performance vis-à-vis the standard 805 D4. What I gleaned from the demo in California, though, was that the 805 D4 Signature showed prominent highs, powerful bass, and good clarity.
I did get to listen to the 801 D4 Signature comparatively, against the standard version, in England, and later in California, and was impressed with what I heard. On both occasions, the 801 D4 Signature exhibited striking detail throughout the audioband and immensely powerful bass and created the spacious, room-filling musical presence so distinctive of Bowers & Wilkins speakers. It drew me in and got my heart pumping. Not many speakers can still do that to me.
The muscular look of the 801 D4 Signature
I find the 801 D4’s appearance just as exciting. It has the ballsy, muscular, almost-animalistic look of an exotic supercar. In the Midnight Blue finish, the 801 D4 Signature looks all the more so. Underlying the awesome appearance and stellar sound of this speaker is its topflight build quality, which goes a long way to justify its price. Still, that price is quite high, as is that of the 805 D4 Signature. But when you see the complexity and quality of the 801’s cabinet sections, the bespoke drivers and their constituent parts, and the meticulous finishes, you just know these speakers are not cheap to make.
All told, the 801 D4 and 801 D4 Signature look and sound like expensive speakers. The Signature model is the best-sounding version of this legendary speaker yet; that, notwithstanding the $12,000-per-pair price hike, pretty much guarantees its success.